Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Intriguing Wellman-directed picture in the doomy Oriental vein of “Broken Blossoms” and “The Bitter Tea of General Yen.” Wallace Beery is Chuck, a bellowing Irish mug who’s installed himself as a warlord in Chinatown. Florence Vidor, in her last film role, plays Joan, an uptown socialite who tours Chinatown with her friends, then becomes reliant on Chuck’s care when she gets mixed up in Tong intrigue. For Joan, Chinatown is a fantasy that has become perilously real. She’s in danger of ending up like Chuck — a white castaway in an Eastern world of treachery and illusion.
Wellman’s taste for the jaunty and the satirical moderates the portentousness of the material and makes for a nice contrast with Paramount’s ornate house style, which at this time was still firmly rooted in the silents. (The picture’s cinematographer, Henry Gerrard, had worked with von Sternberg.) Unsurprisingly, “Chinatown Nights” was shot as a silent, then retrofitted for sound, a fact which lends the picture a verbal awkwardness some might find jarring. Here, too, Wellman’s sensibility is beneficial: More often than not, his ad hoc approach succeeds in milking thrills from disjunctiveness. In addition to the gangland stuff, “Chinatown Nights” features bits of melodrama, satire, and expressionism. Even the cynical newspaper comedy, which would become so popular in the ’30s, is present in embryonic form: Jack Oakie plays a soused reporter who instigates a Tong conflict so he can swoop in as it happens and get the scoop. The movie’s conception of fantasy taking a frightening turn into reality, then turning back into fantasy has, in Wellman’s hands, a farcical air; yet it anticipates the more somber work of Rivette and Lynch, and it offers a clever gloss on the alchemical capacity of movies.
Not everything in “Chinatown Nights” adds up. The specifics of the conflict between Chuck and a competing heavy (Warner Oland) remain frustratingly vague, and their gangs’ machinations lack suspense and narrative drive. (A plot point concerning immigration papers falls flat.) None of this sinks the movie. On the contrary, the peripheral blurriness helps maintain focus on the tender masochism of the Beery-Vidor relationship; it also contributes to the movie’s patchy, dreamlike vibe. And the gang war does yield a few nice bits: I admired a scene showing an urchin gunned down in the street, his legs convulsing wildly as the life drains out of him.
Today, Wellman is primarily remembered as the director of “Wings” and “The Public Enemy.” Few realize that he was among the most adventurous and consistently interesting American directors of the early sound period, one who regularly turned out genre pictures of startling vitality, ingenuity, and freshness. “Chinatown Nights” captures the emergence of his ’30s style. You can feel him pulling at the reins, eager to break into a new era.
- Wellman had a hand in directing “Female,” which I wrote about back here.